Terms of the Hawking Professorship: a worrying threat to academic independence and equal pay

‘NON PLACET’ REVISITED

The ballot on the Stephen W. Hawking Professorship of Cosmology closes on Monday 24 February at 5 pm. Anyone who has a vote should use it. These plans will define the nature of donations to the University for generations to come, and they set two dangerous precedents. Firstly, in establishing a post-tenure review procedure, they pave the way for a wider use of such reviews, whether for professors or for all academic staff. Secondly, in pitching the salary of a post outside existing pay scales, they threaten to undermine the University-wide pay structure, which offers a modicum of fairness in a world increasingly governed by the logic of divide and rule.

The terms of the donation have been written into a deed that guarantees an outsized payment for the chair-holder—whilst ensuring that the University nonetheless pays a substantial part of her/his salary. After lengthy discussions, and taking advice from external lawyers, a divided Council acknowledged that pay-equality issues would be raised were the bonus payment to be channeled through the University. But such issues are supposedly circumvented by paying the top-up directly to the incumbent—which is what is now proposed. We are assured that the Trustees will take account of conventions for pay within the University, but that promise has absolutely no legal teeth.

The performance of the chair-holder will be reviewed after 7  and 12 years in post, when it can be extended to a maximum of 17 years. There are no other positions in the University with an equivalent requirement, excluding the Royal Society Research Professorships, where tenure is determined by an external institution. As well as making the position less desirable in itself, and threatening existing tenure arrangements, the time-limited nature of the Chair may create funding problems. Paying the ‘former’ Hawking Professors will strip the department of money that could be spent on new hires.

If we agree to the proposed arrangements for the Chair, the University’s donors will in future be free to ignore existing employment practices and to impose their own arrangements as a condition of their gifts. This is clearly unacceptable. So too is the threat to tenure, which will contribute to a climate in which academic staff are reluctant to undertake independent research and to express independent views for fear of reprisals. Hence the importance of a no vote in the current ballot.

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